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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

"Are you on the boat tomorrow?"

That's the question that would pretty much shape my everyday life on the island of Koh Lanta (Thailand) for over three months:

Being on the boat meant helping loading/unloading the dive boat for a day trip of diving in the morning/afternoon, preparing equipment and breakfast, holding boat and dive briefings, making sure our dive customers are happy and of course diving diving diving: Assisting Instructors supervise students during courses, learning how to guide groups of divers underwater, applying underwater navigation and so on...
Not being on the boat meant sitting over books studying dive theory, getting lessons on Physics, Physiology and other important topics related to diving, doing skill demonstrations in the pool or just having a day off to recharge your batteries...

But I am jumping ahead to far! First, lets me explain how it all started:
It began with me arriving on Koh Lanta in November 2011. By then I was already seven months on the road, having travelled through parts of South America, Africa and Asia on my one-year-around-the-world journey. Originally I planned to stay just a week or so, maybe do some fun-diving and then move on... But it wasn't meant to be: I quickly fell in love with the relaxed and laid-back way of life on Koh Lanta and (being a bit travel weary on top of that) I decided: "That's it. I need to slow down. I want to stay on this Island for some time!" But what to do? As nice as the Island is, knowing myself I knew I needed something to do, a goal, more than just lying on the beach all day, or I would just get bored out of my mind. I thought a little about it and suddenly got THE IDEA: "Why not become a Divemaster?" I said to myself. First the thought seemed a little scary: Becoming a PADI Divemaster? I had just learnt diving barely two months ago in Indonesia, where I did my PADI Open Water and Advanced course and had just a meager 18 dives on my log book - let's face it: I was a bloody beginner on all accounts. Wasn't that a bit rash? On the other hand: Why not? I loved diving, I was sure others had done the same thing before me and I welcomed the challenge: Doing this would mean a worthwhile goal, improving and learning to better myself in a sport I had already in a short time developed a passion for and at the end (hopefully) getting a real sense of achievement out of it. It just felt right at this time and place, so yeah, I went with my gut feeling and rather spontaneously decided: I am gonna do this! And boy I never regretted that decision!

Excited, I went the next day to a couple of dive shops on Koh Lanta to enquire about their Divemaster courses. Conditions, prices, duration and so on. I didn't know much of what to expect, just that I wanted not to do one of the 'fast-track' Divemaster courses where you can get certified in 2-3 weeks. Every time I had spoken with more experienced divers (among them my first Instructor on the Gili Islands in Indonesia), they had advised against a short DM course. Their reasoning: While it was certainly possible to fulfil the PADI requirements in that short time frame, what was lacking was the time to get some real experience. They all recommended to do at course which lasted at least 2-3 months, to really learn the ropes. And I myself also knew I sorely wanted and needed as much experience as I could get my hands on. Also I had time on my hands, so why the rush?

Knowing all this I was a little disappointed by the first few dive shops I went to, as all they offered were exactly these short courses I wanted to avoid. But then I finally came upon Blue Planet Divers and all was good: After I walked in their shop and boldly announced: "I wanna become a Divemaster", Mellisa (the managing director) took a long time to explain to me the Blue Planet DM program: Most importantly she believes in an extensive course, at least 6 weeks but preferably longer (up to 3 months). After all, being a Divemaster is the entry step to the professional world of diving. As a PADI Divemaster, you are qualified to lead divers (many of them beginners) on underwater tours, and of course this brings along a certain amount of responsibility. Mellisa's philosophy is to make 100% sure you are ready for that job when you leave Blue Planet Divers. This means you will be part of the professional Blue Planet team from day one of the course: Not just diving and theory but getting to know the basics of the diving business: Helping out on the boat and dive shop, working along instructors and divemasters, dealing with the customers, handling emergency situations and so on... you get the idea. That was exactly what I wanted and so I was quickly convinced and decided to start at Blue Planet Divers the next day.

First thing to do was the Rescue Diver course which is a prerequisite to the Divemaster course. The course took three days and my Instructor Karolina made sure it was a lot of fun as well as very informative. I got a first taste of what it means being in charge of (unexpected/emergency) situations. Especially the last dive of the course which I would later describe as a 'dive from hell' in my log book is still vivid in my memory. Karolina simulated all kinds of emergency situations (out of air/panic/unconscious/narced diver etc.) and I had to react to them. Being trained ın the proper behaviour the previous days it felt good to respond to these situations and handle them accordingly. It gives you a lot of confidence knowing you are prepared to handle these situations (which although you hope you will never encounter are always a possibility). A good appetiser for the DM course. Now I wanted more. And more I got...

The DM course was a real roller coaster ride (excuse the cliché). I would lie if I were to say it was always easy. There are times when you make mistakes and Instructors reprimand you; when you stand in the way on the boat feeling rather useless. It is sometimes tiring and exhausting. But each day you LEARN LEARN LEARN and then it feels SO GOOD when after a long day your Instructor compliments you on your good work or you achieve another milestone on the DM course. And you have these moments, like for example, when on the way back from the dive site to Koh Lanta you sit with your Coke in hand on the sundeck of the boat, discussing with excited divers about what they saw underwater and it all feels like a dream come true! And there's nothing more rewarding then a big grin on the face of the divers as they come out of the water, telling you what good time they had!
I guess in the end, it's all part of the experience, the Highs and the Lows!
One more thing I want to mention: I especially appreciated the chance to work with a lot of different Instructors and Divemasters at Blue Planet Divers. Every Instructor has kind of its own 'style' and I found it very interesting to see the different approaches to teaching and realising that there isn't one golden way to things but rather a lot of ways to achieve the same result (even if sometimes it drives you a little nuts). ;-)

In the end, looking back, I can honestly say it was the best experience of my whole world trip. Not only am I now a fully-fledged Divemaster with over a hundred dives under my belt, able to work virtually anywhere in the world where there's some diving; I also became a much more confident and better diver overall - so even if I never end up working in the dive industry, that alone was totally worth it.
But there was so much more I take home with me from these months at Blue Planet Divers: I became part of an awesome team of  passionate and professional divers. I learnt what TEAM-WORK and TEAM-SPIRIT really means. And we not only worked and dived together; we drank and danced and dined together; we hung out watching the sunsets and had barbecue and cheese and wine nights; we partied the night away at the Irish Pub on Long Beach; and don't even get me started on the Snorkel tests! I endured countless German jokes (Don't mention the war!) and learned to appreciate the English 'sense of humour' - or at least politely pretend to ;-)

So when I finally departed there was a bittersweet feeling to it: I felt as if I left a big new-found family behind but at the same time I knew I could always come back, and then - no doubt about it - I would surely hear that familiar question again:
"Are you on the boat tomorrow?"

Ralf Bommersbach, PADI Divemaster, Germany, 28/03/2012

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Good writing and deep stuff. Hope to see you very soon again.
    Best, M